Medium Game Review: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

I felt a little guilty starting a discount western shooter when I haven’t finished the Fallout DLC, or even started Mass Effect, but I’ll be honest: when I want to unwind, point allocation and managing inventories don’t immediately jump to mind, in fact that seems too much like work. (See also my critique of the Wii, sure it has fun party games, but who wants to relax by waving their arms around wildly? I mean that basically sounds like my job.) That’s right, when I want to relax I want to shoot at bad guys. With guns. Maybe as a cowboy. And possibly ride a horsey.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a sequel to game I haven’t played (Call of Juarez), and was an impulse buy when I saw it for $18 at a BestBuy sale. You play as Ray and Thomas McCall, bad-ass cowboy types who are deserters from the Confederate army in a Civil War-era Western tale of vengeance, betrayal, lost Aztec gold, etc. The game manages to include Mexican banditos, US Marshals, multiple Native American tribes,  Pinkertons, and a crazy Confederate general who has refused to accept that the war is over, such that I’m not really sure what spaghetti western character archetypes aren’t included. The story was actually above average for a video game, with several twists, turns, and the requisite betrayals, all carried out by solid voice acting from the range of characters. The main game play hook (beyond shooting cowboys) is that in most levels you can choose which McCall brother to play with: Ray is big and burly, can dual wield pistols, and throw dynamite, Thomas is built for speed and agility and has access to a variety of range and stealth weapons. I flipped back and forth between the two characters and they actually play rather differently and added some nice variety to the experience. A strange effect that having two protagonists introduces is that in-game dialogue changes a bit such that whichever brother you’re not playing seems slightly more mentally unstable than the one you’re playing as (though Ray is portrayed as the sociopath in the between level cut scenes.) This could be a neat storytelling concept in terms of how the brothers might see each other, but it was probably just a hack to have the non-player brother push the action and story in the direction of danger/chaos during each level.

Western shooters are a pretty small genre but I’ve enjoyed Gun, and Lucas Art’s Outlaws from back in the day, and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood does a good job of introducing modern graphics and some neat game play gimmicks to elevate that genre to meet modern gaming standards. All of the outdoor environments are beautiful: from the rolling countryside of Georgia, desserts of Mexico, to the mountains of Northern Arizona. Many levels end with a mini-game-style dual in which you have to slowly step side to side and keep your hand positioned near your holster with the analog stick. This seemed cool and a neat device to deliver tension, but I was so bad at it at first that replaying the same dual nine times really sapped the drama from the moment. (It did feel bad-ass later on when I was better at and could take guys out on the first draw.) Most levels feature a “burst through the doors and clear the room in slow-mo with your brother” sequence that is fun and not overused. Each brother also has their own special power they can activate for a bullet time type mechanic that is a least a mildly original. For a western game you don’t spend a ton of time on horseback, and it doesn’t feel too different from how you move when on foot. I also felt really, really bad when I got into a gun fight on horseback and my horse got shot out from under me.

Some elements of the game do feel weak or lacking. Particularly notable in terms of not fully executed concepts are the two sandbox-style levels of the game where you can take optional missions to collect bounties, protect rail road workers, etc. I guess they’re useful to let you accrue money and buy fancier weapons, but from a gameplay perspective they’re pretty short, repetitive, and have that tacked-on-to-make-the-game-closer-to-10-hours feel. It did seem lame that there is no cooperative mode given that 80% of the game has the two brother fighting side by side. The strengths of the game were probably in the variety of environments you explore, the story, and the voice acting. These days I haven’t been motivated to play through many single player games so this was actually a fun break.

So definitely worth my $18, though I’d probably recommend borrowing it from someone (perhaps me) as it doesn’t take too long to play through and the multiplayer doesn’t look enticing.

P.S. Zero Punctuation reviewed Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood last August, his review is much snarkier, but actually pretty positive by Zero Punctuation standards.